The Washington Post

Stepmothers have to carry some wicked baggage


While I’m away, readers give the advice.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

On the woman who took umbrage at being introduced as a stepmother:

My stepmother came into my life when I was 4 years old. I initially called her my “footmom.” Stepmom was a wonderful, gracious, giving person to me, my brother, my dad and later to my two adopted sisters. My mom, who I lived with, was also great. I was lucky to have two moms!

Many years after reaching adulthood, my stepmother introduced me at a social event as her “son.” It seemed natural to me. However, Stepmom worried that she had insulted me or my mom by doing so and confided this to my dad. After Dad alerted me, I was able to tell Stepmom that I was honored to be called her son and that I also considered her my mom. While I was growing up, Stepmom made it a point to be helpful to my mom, including taking off work to keep me when I was sick so that my mom would not have to miss work.

Sadly, we lost Stepmom to cancer a few years ago. A few days before she passed, she received a heartfelt letter from my mom thanking her for being a second mom to her boys.


On dealing with a parent’s or in-law’s negativity:

Lord have mercy! When I was 50 I suddenly realized I didn’t care about other people’s opinions of me, and now, 10 years later, I am sorry it took me so long. They don’t like your house? They don’t live there! The car? Are they driving it?

I understand, they are family, but still. My mother was a complete nut job. She hated infant car seats — “We didn’t have them when you were a baby, and you were fine” — and couldn’t understand why anyone would baby-proof their house: “Just watch the baby!” When I quit caring about other people’s opinions, my life changed dramatically.


On being asked the dreaded, ‘When are you due?’:

I look like I am about six months pregnant at all times; unfortunately, it’s simply where I carry ALL my weight. Skinny everywhere but my big belly. I get the “when are you due?” question weekly. Sometimes more often than that and it [stinks].

I figured out that the best thing to do is give them a genuine smile and in a caring way say, “Ohh, I’m not pregnant ... but it was an honest mistake. I get that question a lot, so please don’t feel bad.” Then I finish it with a quick pat/rub on the shoulder or arm, because at that point the people usually have horrified looks on their faces.

I do this because it finally dawned on me that this situation was far more embarrassing for the person who just stuck his foot in his mouth. I’ve accepted my body type and there was just no sense in being rude, making a snarky comment, ignoring them, giving them some pretend date to play along with it or getting angry/embarrassed/etc. Most people aren’t trying to be jerks; they really do believe what they’re asking is okay.

Defusing the situation with kindness will go a long way in making you feel more comfortable in your own skin. Also, you can be sure that the person will never make that mistake again.


It seems like pregnancy is an area where people really are unable to control their foot-in-mouth disease. So, new rules:

1. Unless someone tells you she is expecting, do not congratulate her on her pregnancy.

2. When someone says she is pregnant, the correct response is, “Congratulations.” If she seems upset about it and you are close, you may follow the congratulations up with, “Are you okay?”

3. Do not EVER remark on a woman’s size. Pregnancy does not give you leeway to do so.

4. Do not ask someone if she’s trying, when she’s going to have a baby, or any similar questions. It’s none of your business. If it were, you would know.

5. Do not remind someone that her biological clock is ticking. She knows.

6. People do not wear their fertility status on their sleeves, so never assume a woman is capable of procreation just because she’s a woman.

7. Not all women want kids, so don’t assume they do.

8. Do not say to a woman, “When you have kids, you will understand.” She may struggle with fertility, she may have lost a child. It’s a [butthead] thing to say.

9. NEVER tell a woman who is struggling with fertility, “I told you not to wait so long.” (Seriously.)

10. Marriage does not mean that a baby should be forthcoming. So, stop eyeing the newlyweds and waiting for “signs of pregnancy.”


Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
From clubfoot to climbing: Double amputee lives life of adventure
Learn to make traditional soup dumplings
In defense of dads
Play Videos
How to make head cheese
Perks of private flying
The rise and fall of baseball cards
Play Videos
Husband finds love, loss in baseball
New hurdles for a Maryland tradition
How to survive a shark attack
Play Videos
Portland's most important meal of the day
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to save and spend money at college

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.